Pontefract Castle has had a long and colourful history since it was first started in the years following the Norman Conquest. It was frequently at the centre of national events, acting as fortress, temporary home for lord or king, centre of local administration, prison for important prisoners and armoury up to its demolition in 1649.
The first earth and timber motte and bailey castle at Pontefract was built by Ilbert de Lacy in the late 1080s. As reward for his services to William the Conqueror, Ilbert received vast estates in Yorkshire. He controlled these estates which formed the Honour of Pontefract from the castle he built here in a commanding position.
Over the following century the first castle was gradually rebuilt in stone for greater strength and permanence. An impressive stretch of the main bailey wall can still be seen from outside the castle north west of the Keep. Of the Great Hall which was at the centre of castle life, nothing now remains except the cellars cut out of the bedrock beneath the bailey. The other visible remains of the earliest stone buildings on the site are the foundations of the castle chapel dedicated to St. Clement, of which the chancel can still be seen. This was only the beginning of building work which was to continue throughout the castle’s long history.
The power and prestige of the Lacy family was gradually extended by Ilbert de Lacy’s successors. His son Robert acquired the Lancashire Honour of Clitheroe, and Robert’s son Henry, who founded Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds, was a famous crusader who died in Palestine in 1177. In 1193 the castle and honour passed to Roger de Lacy, a junior member of the family. He was a renowned soldier and loyal supporter of King John. His son John married the Countess of Lincoln and thereafter the Lacy lords were known as Earls of Lincoln.
The last Lacy Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy (1251 - 1311), was a prominent soldier and statesman under Edward I. His daughter and heiress, Alice, married Thomas Earl of Lancaster and it was their marriage settlement which transferred the Lacy estates to the House of Lancaster. Thomas organised opposition to Edward II and was eventually tried for treason in his castle of Pontefract, and was executed on the hill north of St. John’s Priory. Some extensive additions were made to the castle in this period, and the importance of the castle was reflected in the town which was at the time one of the largest and richest towns in the West Riding.
Thomas’s lands were restored to his heirs and became part of the Duchy of Lancaster when it was created in 1351. The Dukes of Lancaster became Kings of England in 1399 when Henry Bolingbroke forced the abdication of his cousin, Richard II. From then on Pontefract was effectively the foremost royal castle in the north of England, maintained and extended while other castles were allowed to stagnate because they no longer had a function. Major building at about this time included the Swillington Tower (1399 - 1405) and the rebuilding of the King’s great kitchen (1413 onwards).
One of the uses to which the castle was put was to house important prisoners. Richard II was imprisoned and died at Pontefract. It is not known if he starved himself to death or left to starve by his captors. Other famous prisoners included James I of Scotland, and Charles Duc d’Orleans captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The castle continued to act as a royal base for military activities in times of unrest. During the Wars of the Roses it was used at times as a Lancastrian stronghold, as when in 1460 the Lancastrian army came from Pontefract to the battle of Wakefield. Later Richard III, while Duke of Gloucester, used Pontefract as one of his official residences. In 1483, during his usurpation of the throne, he had three of his political opponents executed in the castle.
During the Civil War Pontefract Castle was held for the King and underwent three sieges, during which the town suffered great damage. Siege coins were minted at the castle, which was the last remaining Royalist stronghold when it finally surrendered in 1649. On the orders of Parliament the castle was so thoroughly demolished that a true picture of its strength and grandeur in its heyday can now only be seen in the fine painting made in the early 17th Century which is on display at Pontefract Museum. Later the bailey area was used for growing liquorice.
In 1882 Pontefract Corporation opened the castle as a public park after some excavation.
The castle is now a scheduled ancient monument in the guardianship of Wakefield Council, although still the property of Her Majesty the Queen in right of her Duchy of Lancaster. A programme of excavation and conservation was undertaken from 1981 - 1985 by The West Yorkshire Archaeology Service for the Pontefract Castle Conservation Committee.
Victorian garden features and remodelling were removed to enable the public to understand the castle better and the mediaeval stonework was restored. Associated excavation concentrated on the area of the kitchen and bakehouse and on the area of the chapels and the Constable Tower. Finds reflect in particular the Civil War period of the castle’s history, and include iron breastplates and helmets, spurs, powder measures and musket balls, as well as more domestic finds such as keys, knives, pewter spoons, bone combs, leather shoes and pottery.
The finds from these excavations will eventually be housed and displayed at Pontefract Museum, after research, conservation and publication. Some early finds from Pontefract Castle may be seen there. In 2010 a refurbished Visitor Centre with displays on the history of the castle was opened at the castle.
Note: All images taken from our exhibition Picturing Pontefract Castle which is on display in the castle visitor centre.